Bismarck du Plessis has baulked at the suggestion that his new-found sense of security will lead to a more complacent approach.
It was the most controversial selection at the 2011 World Cup. Peter de Villiers favoured John Smit as his starting hooker despite the form of Du Plessis, who at the time was regarded as the best No 2 in the world as well as one of the best players on the planet.
It was during this time that Du Plessis used every playing opportunity to prove a point, and every second-half cameo seemed to strengthen his cause. It will remain one of the great rugby tragedies that he didn’t receive a more extensive opportunity at a World Cup while he was in his prime.
He should be bitter, but Du Plessis looks to have put the disappointment of 2011 behind him. There’s good reason to feel better about his place in the Bok set-up, as new coach Heyneke Meyer has not only backed him as the starting hooker but named him the Bok vice-captain as well.
It would appear that the 28-year-old has finally realised the ambition of a regular starting spot, but he doesn’t see it that way. There is of course the extra responsibility that comes with leading the forwards (team captain Jean de Villiers is in charge of the backs) that he has embraced wholeheartedly. 2011 is different to 2012 for reasons beyond the obvious.
‘Ja, it’s a different challenge,’ he says. ‘Last year I was the guy at the back of the row, now this year there are other guys at the back of the row. There is a responsibility for us older guys to help the younger guys slot in.
‘As one of the older guys, it’s been great to see Eben [Etzebeth], Juandre [Kruger], Marcell [Coetzee] and Coenie [Oosthuizen] stepping up. We know that we will have to improve this week, but [the performance in Durban] was encouraging.’
It will help that he is packing down alongside Sharks team-mates Beast Mtawarira and Jannie du Plessis in the front row, a powerful base for a much improved Bok scrum. The lineout remains a work in progress, and the tackle point has been identified as another area that requires sharpening.
While he is a good set-piece exponent, it’s at the tackle where Du Plessis’ X factor is most prominent. A robust ball-carrier, a hard-hitting tackler and one of the form fetchers at present, he has the ability to swing matches.
The Bok collective will need to be more physical and accurate at the breakdowns, and a strong team showing will certainly amplify the Du Plessis threat. The man himself also had some brave words for those who would caution of an English backlash.
‘We want to keep improving. Yes, we are expecting a massive physical onslaught from England this week, but they should also be expecting a massive onslaught from us. We are growing and improving, we are aiming to be better.’
There is a perception that players with such an abrasive inclination are not suited to leadership positions. Some feel that the added responsibility can force such players to hold back, or alternatively set a bad example for their charges.
There are, however, many examples that challenge the perception. Hard-nosed players like Martin Johnson have proved successful captains and won World Cups, as have the likes of Richie McCaw who push the breakdown boundaries week after week.
Du Plessis is another who strongly believes that an abrasive approach doesn’t compromise the ability to lead.
‘The responsibility is not going to change me. I won’t shy away from the contact. I’ve always liked the saying “Rugby is like war with a little bit more rules”.’
If the talk in both camps is to be believed, we should be in for another bloody, physical battle this weekend. South Africans should feel confident knowing that one of their most powerful warriors will be leading from the front.
By Jon Cardinelli, in Johannesburg